Monday, 25 April 2016

And That's Cutting Me Own Throat

This is the second part of my playthrough of Fighting Fantasy book 58, Keith Martin's Revenge of the Vampire. Anyone who hasn't yet read the first part, or wants to refresh their memory about what happened in it, can find it here.

As I rather pathetically attempt to pursue Heydrich's coach on foot, I encounter a farmer leading a horse. He's willing to sell it to me in return for all my gold (so long as that's above a certain value). There are two common complaints about this encounter in FF fandom, one valid, the other one (as far as I can tell) missing the point. I'll address the valid objection in the next paragraph, once I've pulled apart the one I don't accept, which boils down to: the farmer should charge a fixed price for the horse because exploiting the situation to wring as much money as possible out of the hero is unreasonable. I agree that it's unreasonable, but so what? You get unreasonable people. Pretty much any time of emergency will be taken by some as an opportunity to rip off the needy and desperate. But it would appear that, to certain fans, while it's okay for gamebooks to feature encounters with the likes of thieves, traitors, slavers, torturers, murderers and genocidal maniacs, opportunists are just unacceptable.

The more reasonable complaint is that the situation leads to one of the book's more serious errors. Probably the worst one in the slightly fixed second print run. The thing is, there are several sections that can only be reached if you buy the horse and subsequently spend another gold piece. But since buying the horse uses up all the player character's gold, there's no way of getting to those sections and picking up the important item which can only be acquired in that sequence. My preferred fix for this bug is an optional Test your Luck to palm a coin when paying the farmer, which makes it possible to pay the additional charge when required, but doesn't eliminate the farmer's short-sighted greed.

So, I buy the horse and successfully retain one gold piece while begrudgingly handing over the rest. The horse makes good time, and after a while I encounter a broken-down coach and learn from its driver that the coach I'm pursuing passed him not long before. Towards dawn, the horse begins to tire, and I catch sight of a coaching inn. Heydrich's coach is being pushed into the stables even as I approach. When I ask the landlord about recent arrivals, he claims that I'm the first this morning, but he has the look of a man who's been hypnotised into forgetting something, so his denial doesn't dissuade me from booking in (for 1 gold, payable in advance).

Though tired, I choose to have a look around before turning in. A chambermaid is fetching linen from a cupboard, so I ask her if she's been warned not to enter any rooms. She mentions the adulterous liaison going on in room five, and is about to mention another room when she goes blank. Not wanting to risk causing mental damage by pushing her too hard, I say no more, but watch her doing her rounds. She takes fresh bedding to all but room five and the room at the end of the corridor, and once she's finished her rounds, I investigate the second of those rooms.

That's 'investigate' as in 'kick the door in'. Crude, but effective. The room is in darkness, but light spilling in from the corridor illuminates the occupied coffin on the bed. And its armed guard Igor, who promptly attacks me. He's tough, and on one of the two occasions he manages to hit me, he does extra damage, but I significantly outclass him, and win without any real trouble. Part of his fighting prowess turns out to be a consequence of his owning a magic sword, which I claim as spoils of battle, along with his gold, a ring, and Sewarth's Codex. For bookkeeping purposes I need to make a note of the number of moonstones set into the ring and pages in the Codex, but the text does at least warn me to do so. Strangely, the Codex has an odd number of pages. Maybe Sewarth only used and numbered one side of each sheet of paper. Unless one of the pages is a moebius strip for some arcane reason...

Fighting Fantasy is a little inconsistent regarding Vampires' vulnerabilities, but in Keith Martin's books, only certain types of weapon can harm them. A magic sword would do, so I take the one I've just acquired, and plunge it into the recumbent Heydrich's chest. The wound heals as soon as I pull the sword out, and the Vampire's grin gets smugger. Exposure to sunlight and decapitation prove equally ineffective, confirming that the gem Sewarth was researching has made Heydrich invulnerable. Still, his coffin has no such protection, and smashing that provides several Blood Points.

Reasoning that the Codex should provide some hints about how to restore the Count's killability, I take it to my room for a good read. Alas, what with having spent the night snooping around a monastery, fighting assorted minions of the Vampire, searching in catacombs, and riding in pursuit of a coach, I'm too tired to give the text the attention it requires, and doze off before I can take in anything of note.

I sleep through most of the daylight hours, and when I wake and discover how late it is, I realise that Heydrich will be on his way again soon. Hurrying to the stables, I find that I'm just too late: as I draw near, a dark horse gallops out, a cloaked figure on its back. Oh, well, at least I forced the Count to abandon his coach by depriving him of his driver.

I'm not really going to be able to continue my pursuit of him, either, as a couple of stablemen block access to my horse, demanding payment for having fed him, and I can see that he's eaten too well to be capable of the sort of speed that would be required to stay on the Vampire's trail. Mind you, it may still be useful to have a horse, and I can't justify attacking the stablemen just for overfeeding him without permission, so I suppose I shall have to pay up.

I ride after the Count, but the horse cannot keep up. At dawn I stop for breakfast, and have another go at reading the Codex. It tells me that Heydrich's current lair is a mansion to the east, that the Soul Gem is in the possession of the three witches who crafted it, and that the Count is planning to go to an unspecified location to raise an army of Vampires in his service. Maps indicate the approximate location of the mansion and the home of the witches.

I decide to visit the mansion first. It won't be possible for me to kill Heydrich there, because of that gem, but I'm pretty sure that even if I were to deal with the witches and the gem first, the Count would still survive my calling on him at home, because dramatic necessity requires that he not be defeated until on the verge of succeeding in his army-raising scheme.

Slightly carelessly, the text has me ask people if they've seen Heydrich's coach, in spite of the fact that he had to leave it back at that inn. Occasional reports of sightings suggest that I am still on the trail he followed. Being on horseback helps me maintain a decent pace, significantly reducing the number of compulsory meals I have to eat along the way. After a while I reach a hamlet, where I can buy more provisions, and while I'm there, I ask if there are any scholars or magicians in the area. Nobody will tell me anything without payment, but after I part with a little cash, the villagers mention an eccentric healer named Zandar or Sender or something along those lines who lives on the outskirts of the hamlet. While not currently in need of medical assistance, I decide to check him out, remembering that there was a monk named Sandar who disappeared from the monastery at the same time as Sewarth.

There's a dilapidated stable in the grounds of the healer's house, and I take a quick look in it. Heydrich's coach is not inside (which is hardly surprising), but there is something undead in there. Not a particularly formidable opponent, and I quickly kill it before continuing on my way to the house.

I knock on the door, and a tall, grey-haired man lets me in. We go to his study, where he pours a couple of glasses of wine and I ask about his work. He talks of his interest in philosophy and life after death, and then lunges at me, yelling about how fascinating he finds the subject of spirit possession. I catch sight of a glowing amulet around his neck, and he produces a poisoned dagger and attacks me. Rather than fight back, I try to get the amulet away from him, and on my second attempt I succeed. It's hot, and burns my hand, but I see sanity returning to his gaze. Then two Zombies burst into the room and attack. After a couple of rounds, the man has sufficiently regained his senses to be able to assist me, and we rapidly prevail.

Sandar (for it is he) is pretty traumatised by what's been going on, and has no memory of the events of the past three weeks, nor of anything he might once have known about Heydrich, nor even what else is in the house. I decide to find out the latter for him. Behind the door through which the Zombies came I find a corridor. Two further doors lead from it, and I also find a secret door, leading to a room that has an evil atmosphere and contains another of Heydrich's coffins. A Death Imp appears and attacks when I enter the room, but I kill it with ease, and smash the coffin.

Returning to the corridor, I try one of the other doors. It's locked, but I smash it down without any trouble. The room beyond is being used as a laboratory, and in addition to the standard paraphernalia, there's a corpse strapped to a table, exhaling a foggy vapour. Despite this disconcerting sight, I give the place a quick search, helping myself to pots of resin and acid. As Luck would have it, nothing unpleasant occurs.

The other door is also locked, and even easier to force. It leads to a finely decorated bedroom, which appears to have been used by the Count himself. I help myself to the four-poster bed's gold tassels and a flask of medicinal brandy, but find nothing else of note. The other wing of the house contains a less ornate bedroom and the kitchen, so I stock up on Provisions before leaving.

As I accompany Sandar to the hamlet, he has a sudden flash of memory. Heydrich had been talking to a servant, and mentioned the mountain where the witches live. There was something there (perhaps the gem) that he wanted back in time. That's probably as in 'he wished it returned to his possession by a specific deadline' rather than 'he intended to use trans-temporal shenanigans to send it into the past', but based on things that happened in a couple of earlier FF titles, the latter is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

I'm pretty sure that despite what Sandar's just said, there's no real time limit for dealing with the witches, and it's possible that if I do head off to their territory now, I won't get the chance to come back this way and investigate the mansion, so I carry on to where I was heading. The weather takes a turn for the worse, and a couple of Giant Ravens attack me, but I ensure that they will nevermore harass travellers on this road.

I continue on my way, and towards the end of the day I notice that the road is getting foggy up ahead. Only the road: the forest to either side of it is not remotely misty. Weird. Walking into the mist may not be fatal, as this book wasn't written by Robin Waterfield or M.W. Bolton, but I'd rather not take the risk anyway. Now, which side of the road did I go onto the last time I got to this point?

The same one that I chose today. No idea what happens on the other side, and maybe I should check it out at some point, but so far I have no reason to believe that I'm better off avoiding this encounter. Investigating sounds of yelling and snarling, I reach a clearing in which a fight has taken place. The bodies of three wolves and a fighter lie on the ground, and two live wolves are menacing a man who's obviously not a fighter, though he is waving around a knife in a less than intimidating manner.

I wave around my sword in a lethal manner, and the wolves join the three that died before I arrived. The man thanks me for saving him, introducing himself as Roban, a travelling merchant. He asks me to help bury his bodyguard and accompany him to the nearby village of Farleigh, and offers to pay for my assistance. I accede to his request, thereby gaining a Faith bonus but losing a point of Blood for the delay. Faith is scarcer than Blood, so it's probably worth it.

The text is a little vaguer than ideal here, but I think I have to sell my horse once I reach Farleigh, because its exertions have taken their toll on it. Naturally I don't get as much as I paid for it. Still, it's not all bad news here. Roban pays for me to have a room at the best inn and, the next day, gives me some money and food. He asks if there's anything else he can do to help, and when I give a vague account of my adventures to date, he mentions a scholar who lives locally but formerly studied at Lake Libra. Slightly annoyingly, unless I head straight to the tavern this scholar frequents, I'll forget this information and be forced to waste time (and Blood) relearning it, but if I do go directly, I don't get to buy anything in the market.

The tavern is an up-market place, and I have to bribe the bouncer to let me in. Harquar, the scholar, is an unimpressive figure, who seems to know nothing of any use, but his demeanour changes when I mention the massacre at the monastery, and he tells me to visit him tomorrow, giving directions to his house. Unwilling to waste another night in this village, I follow him home from the tavern. He has a bodyguard large enough to put me off the idea of forcing my way into the house, but some caprice prompts me to loiter in the vicinity rather than just getting a room for the night.

Lamplight shows from a window, and I see the mist by that window coalescing into the shape of some tentacled creature, which dissolves the window and slithers through. I climb the wall, fortunately not inconvenienced by having missed out on getting a rope at the market, and enter the room to find Harquar in bed, his face covered by the Vampiric Jelly. I slice the thing up before it can suffocate him, and then send his useless bodyguard to fetch a healer.

Once a couple of herbal restoratives have restored Harquar's health, I tell him everything relevant that's happened since I met Henrik. It turns out that Sewarth arranged for Harquar to move here to keep an eye on Heydrich's mansion. The place was already haunted after an insane nobleman murdered his family there, so the locals have assumed any peculiar happenings to be caused by the ghosts, rather than suspecting the new owner of being up to something. The mansion's reputation has also made it difficult for Harquar to recruit any local help, so he knows next to nothing about the Count's activities.

One thing he does know is that the Soul Gem is a crystal heart. If I hadn't already know the witches' whereabouts, I'd learn it now, and Harquar also warns me to try and deal with the witches one at a time rather than as a group. He also suspects that Heydrich has some concealed source of power, and is only working with the witches until he's in a position to draw on it.

Before I resume my journey to Heydrich's house, which Harquar reveals to be called Mortus Mansion, the scholar gives me a bundle of letters that circulated between him, Sewarth and Henrik, as they may contain some useful information. He also announces his intent to go somewhere else before the next assassination attempt.

I'll end this instalment here, partly because it's already been a fortnight since my previous post, and partly to set up a 'save point'. I don't think I've done anything catastrophically wrong yet, and I know from at least two past failures at this book that there's a potentially lethal encounter not far off. If my next post turns out to be a short one, I will at least have the option of restarting from here rather than having to repeat most of what I've been doing up until now.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Blood Is a Special Substance

Keith Martin's final Fighting Fantasy gamebook, Revenge of the Vampire (sequel to his second FF book, Vault of the Vampire), is like several previous FF books in that I came across a second-hand copy a while before getting back into gamebooks, looked at it in the shop, and was not inspired to buy at that time. This one I originally found in the long-since-closed Mind charity shop on Savile Street. I don't particularly regret having passed up the opportunity to get it at that point, because I've been rather lucky as regards RotV since then.

For starters, Revenge was the book I bought at the same time as Magehunter in a charity shop I only got to visit once before it went out of business. A while after that, a copy in significantly better condition turned up in the no-longer-extant Oxfam bookshop at the corner of South Street and Carr Lane. Though the price was almost five times that of the one I'd already bought, I was by then aware of the scarcity of the book, so I bought that one, too.

Before long, I parted with the more battered of those copies in a trade with another FF fan. Then, a little later, I bought yet another copy for less than half of what my first one had cost (though, bucking the trend, the place where I found that one wasn't a charity shop and hasn't since closed down - Hull still has its Central Library, even if its stock of books isn't what it was). That one I sold on eBay, with a very reasonable starting price, and it ended up going for about ten times the total amount I'd spent on copies of Revenge of the Vampire.

A little while after that, I became friends with another fan who didn't have Revenge in his collection, so when an eBay search turned up a copy with a decent Buy It Now price, I snapped it up on his behalf. By now I imagine that some of the readers are cursing my name for having got the book so often while they've never even seen one 'in the paper', so it's probably a good thing that my reminiscences about finding inexpensive copies of RotV end here.

One of those copies had a handwritten message on the first page, revealing the book to have originally been an engagement gift from fiancée to fiancé. Finding writing in an old gamebook is never a good thing, but that was a particularly sad instance. I have no idea what circumstances led to the book's winding up on sale where I found it, but I can't imagine them being anything cheery.

Some of the copies that passed through my hands were from different print runs, as a result of which I was able to discover that one of the book's many errors (it's probably the worst-afflicted of all the FF books hit by the decline in proofreading and playtesting towards the end of the run) was fixed for the second edition. Only one, though. Better than none, I guess, and it was one of the more serious mistakes, but it's odd that, as Puffin went to the effort of redoing the typesetting to correct that blunder, they left all the other flaws as they were.

My previous online playthrough of the book is another of the handful that were saved from e-blivion by the Wayback Machine. Not a particularly successful attempt, nor a very informative write-up, but it's here in case anyone thinks reading about my character's rapid and gruesome demise will improve their mood.

So, an unspecified number of years after a luckier or more valiant warrior than my last character in Vault succeeded in staking the eponymous Vampire, a completely new adventurer is in a tavern near the quiet town of Gummport, lamenting the lack of opportunities to be heroic. The landlord's son assists a blind man to a seat and, observing a couple of the more shifty patrons taking an interest in the new arrival, my character silently warns them off and joins the blind man.

 The man introduces himself as Henrik van der Termlen, a scholar on his way to meet an old friend named Sewarth at one of the local universities. I ask why he's travelling alone in this potentially hazardous region, and he tells me that a couple of nights ago his travelling companion Otto was poisoned by an enemy who means to keep Henrik from reaching his destination. Suppressing my suspicions that he might be a bit paranoid, I offer to accompany Henrik the rest of the way, and he accepts. It's getting late, so we head to our respective rooms for the night.

It would appear that Henrik is not an early riser. After breakfast I go to his room to wake him, and find that somebody has fatally stabbed him during the night. Backing away from the corpse, I stumble over a box jutting from under the bed, spilling its contents onto the floor. There's money in there (so the killing wasn't a robbery gone bad), and papers, which turn out to be copies of letters that Henrik (who, post-mortem, is intermittently referred to as 'Henrick' in one of the more trivial of the book's editing blunders) had sent to Sewarth. This correspondence indicates that Henrik had been on the trail of the Mortvanian Vampire Count Reiner Heydrich, who stored some of his essence in a magical container to ensure that he'd be able to come back if anyone managed to kill him, and wanted Sewarth to research the Soul Jewel used by Heydrich.

Having failed to protect Henrik, I resolve to take his notes to Sewarth in the hope that doing so will help bring about Heydrich's downfall. It would appear that I don't see myself as a prospective Vampire hunter, despite having been raring to go adventuring mere hours before. Maybe it's because of my stats - let's see what they are...
Skill 12
Stamina 16
Luck 11
Faith 6
Not that bad (though they'd have been less impressive if I hadn't allocated dice). There's also a non-randomised attribute to keep track of time wasted, progress made in interfering with Heydrich's plans, and so on. It's called Blood, and starts at 10, but it can go into negative figures if I make a real mess of things.

My first decision, which comes at the end of the Background rather than in section 1, is whether to take Henrik's money or just the papers. Being short of funds can lead to trouble in this adventure (not least because of one of the book's more infamous flaws), and if I leave the money, it'll just be pilfered by someone for less worthy reasons, so I take it. My hurried departure attracts no attention, and I'm soon on my way to Lake Libra, where the monastery in which Sewarth lives is situated.

There's not just the one monastery by the lake, though, and finding the correct one could take time. Or I could make a small donation to the coffers at the Hamaskian Monastery, and they'll tell me the right one. I take the latter option, and get directed to the Halls of the Stars, a monastery with a reputation for housing eccentrics who carry out particularly obscure studies. The young monk who opens the door when I knock seems reluctant to let me in, but when I speak of the papers that must be delivered to Sewarth, he fetches two senior monks.

The older of the two introduces himself as Endrell and his companion as Marcus, and explains that Sewarth is away, as is the fourth Elder, Sandar, but Sewarth should be back soon. He asks to see the papers, and I let him have a look. After a brief scrutiny of some papers, and a closer look at others, he says they don't mean much to him, and I'd be advised to wait for Sewarth. Marcus also wants to see the papers, but Endrell declines to show them to him, and I get the impression that there's something in them that he doesn't want the younger monk to see.

I am shown to a sparsely furnished room and given an unappetising meal. Sleep eludes me during the night, so I decide to do some investigating. A discreet visit to Endrell might help determine whether he has something to hide, or he harbours suspicions about Marcus. There's no reply when I knock at his door, but it's not locked, so I take a look inside and find the room unoccupied, the bed showing no signs of use. A quick search of the room turns up a wooden chest under the bed. It's locked, but not difficult to force open, and inside I find some books, including a heavily annotated copy of A History of Mortvania: Vol. 8. Endrell definitely knows more than he's letting on.

The sound of footsteps in the corridor outside keeps me from taking a closer look at what's been written in the book, and I decide that it's too soon for a confrontation, and risk hiding in the wardrobe. Luckily, I remember to hide the obvious traces of my intrusion before doing so, and Endrell fails to spot anything amiss when he returns to the room. Once he's asleep, I sneak back out, and decide to see if I can find out anything from Marcus.

When I knock on the door to Marcus' room, just across the corridor, I hear a bolt being drawn, and then the door is opened just wide enough for Marcus to see who I am. He looks frightened, but lets me in when I say that I'm concerned about Sewarth. Handling the subsequent conversation can be tricky, because it's one of the places where the book's anti-cheating mechanisms go too far. I'm all right, as I only need to be able to remember the number in the title of the book that caught my attention in Endrell's room to be able to talk about it, but the incidental detail I'd have had to memorise if Endrell had found me hiding is at least as obscure as a price tag.

According to Marcus, neither of the absent monks said anything to him about leaving - Endrell told him after they were gone. I mention the book I found, and Marcus reveals that Endrell often leaves his room at night, and he (Marcus) has spotted strange shapes flitting about after dark. He suggests checking out the library or Sewarth's room, and gives me directions to both.

I decide to start with Sewarth's room. The door is locked, but the lock is crude enough that I can pick it with my knife. Inside, I find that the furniture has been covered with drapes, and the bookcases and chests are padlocked. Not really the state in which I'd expect to find the room of someone whose return is imminent. I risk taking the time for a proper search. This costs me 1 Blood, and turns up almost nothing, but I do eventually find a hastily-scrawled note which indicates that Sewarth suspected the monastery had been infiltrated, and has concealed copies of his findings somewhere down below. Evidently everything else he's written has been removed and/or destroyed.

There are six doors in this wing of the monastery. I've been through three, and know where a fourth leads. However, from past attempts at the book, I also know that it'll be worth my while to check out one of the other doors before entering the library. Now, which one was it...? The one I try first, which is convenient. It contains a large number of ledgers and scrolls, one of which contains records of library usage, revealing that both Sewarth and Endrell have taken out lots of books on Mortvania and the undead recently. I also find a little money, which I pocket.

Time to have a look in the library. It has a domed balcony (and, of course, lots of shelves of books). I start to search - not sure what for, but I'm confident I'll know it when I see it. Or perhaps when I don't: several books in the library's small section on the undead are conspicuous by their absence. I ascend to the dome to contemplate this, and realise that the glass of the dome has been designed to magnify the view of the night sky. This makes it all the easier for me to spot the bat-like shape that flies in from the east and glides down to the ground by the west wing of the monastery. That merits further investigation.

Proceeding to the west wing, I find three doors: two leading north, the other south. One of the north doors is a waste of time (and Blood), while the other leads to the conclusion of the sequence set in the monastery. As I don't remember which is which, I'll risk trying the south one first. As I approach it, I hear a groaning noise, and then a terrified-looking monk bursts through the door and heads for the exit. The passage beyond the door leads to many monks' cells, some of them with doors gaping, and a trail of blood leads down it. I wouldn't be much of a hero if I didn't investigate, would I?

The trail leads to the corpse of a young monk. Hearing screams from further ahead, I rush on in the hope of saving whoever is in trouble, but by the time I reach the source, he's already been killed by an undead monstrosity in a habit, which promptly turns on me. I manage to kill it without taking any damage (good thing, too, as I might have caught something nasty if the Ghoul-Monk had got its dirty fingernails into me). There's one monk still alive, too traumatised to speak, but he points to the north. Regrettably, the tell-tale 'if you have not tried it already' that would have been appended to the dud north door if I'd been too chicken to follow the blood trail isn't present here, so I'm just going to have to rely on patchy memories and half-guess.

I'm right again. The door I pick leads to the kitchens, and there’s an open trapdoor in the floor, from which emanates a smell of decay. I descend the stone steps below, and encounter a potentially confusing ambiguity: the text asks if I’ve slain a monk. I know from past attempts at the book that the question is designed to ascertain whether or not I got into a fight with Endrell in his room, but it would not be completely unreasonable for a player to think that the question refers to the Ghoul-Monk (what with the ‘Monk’ in its designation) and miss out on a confrontation with Heydrich’s lackey.

Anyway, I have yet to slay a regular monk in this attempt at the book, so as I reach the lower level, I hear Endrell muttering to himself about how he'll have to leave and join his Master now that 'he' (presumably the Ghoul-Monk) has escaped and killed. He falls silent as he approaches the steps, and the book gets misleading. I have the choice of challenging him or attacking him, but from my first failed attempt at the book, I know that it's using the word 'challenge' to mean 'make up a weak excuse for being down here and let Endrell trick me into downing a poisoned nightcap', which must come as something of a disappointment to any reader who was hoping to interrogate the treacherous monk.

So I take the course of action that won't lead to my death, and pretty soon I have slain a monk after all. The corridor along which Endrell came leads to a maze of catacombs, and searching for Sewarth's hidden notes takes some time. When I do find them, they're something of a disappointment (though the scraps of knowledge they contain are worth as many Blood Points as I lost in the search). They tell me only that:
  1. Sewarth knew that one of his fellows had succumbed to Heydrich's influence, but not which one.
  2. Heydrich will be invulnerable as long as his Soul Gem remains hidden.
  3. Further information is in Sewarth's Codex, which he has hidden somewhere.
  4. Heydrich has made his home somewhere to the north-east (the map showing where is illegibly smudged).
My study of these notes is interrupted by a revelation concerning the bat-like shape that originally drew my attention to the west wing of the monastery: it's a huge vampire bat with horns, red eyes, and long claws, which is doing its best to swoop at me in the narrow passageway. I clip its wings.

Coming to the conclusion that I've found out everything useful I'm going to learn here, I get ready to leave. On the way out of the catacombs, I spot some money at the feet of one of the long-dead monks. Taking it will cost me a point of Faith, as that constitutes desecration, but not taking it could cost me more, as without it I don't have quite enough gold to get to one of the book's more serious bugs.

Back at ground level, I discover that the front doors to the monastery are now open, and there's a dead monk (possibly the one I saved from the Ghoul-Monk) in the doorway leading south. Horses whinny outside, and I rush out to see a caped figure climbing into a black coach with four black stallions. What with Heydrich's 'invulnerable until the Soul Gem is found' factor, attacking him isn't massively clever, but I try anyway. He grabs my sword by the blade and smacks me in the head with the pommel, but my reckless courage does restore the Faith I lost by tomb-robbing.

As I sprawl dazed on the ground, the coach departs, and now seems as good a time as any to utter the incantation 'End of part one' and pause the narrative. This is going to be a busy week, as I have to fill in for someone who's ill, so it may be a few days before the next instalment.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

The One Who's Gonna Suffer

Proteus issue 15 was another one acquired on the way to school. When I got it, the 'Extra Special Christmas Adventure' it contained got more of my attention than the main feature, M.W. Bolton's The Havarine Madness. Funnily enough, this was because I expected the bonus adventure to be bad, and was curious as to how awful it could be. As it turned out, the Christmas adventure was pretty decent, and quite fun. It wasn't until I finally got around to having a proper go at THM that I discovered the issue did contain an appalling shambles of an adventure, just not the one I'd expected.

The premise isn't overly unpromising. The adventure starts quite generically, as I'm in a tavern in order to meet the unknown individual from the Royal Household of Garrangar who has requested my assistance in an unspecified quest. Not that we stay there for long: the actual mission briefing takes place on a nearby hill. Apparently this was once a happy place, but then the Havarines came along, bringing with them an infectious madness that has turned the king into a deranged tyrant. Just after I'm told of this, another sufferer of the madness bursts from the tavern, trying to fight off some horror that only exists in his mind.

The only hope for a cure lies with the wise-man Zermahaar, who owns a curative potion and a talisman that could rid the land of the Havarines. Well, my contact calls the latter item a talisman, but then states that it's called The Sword of Ruin, which suggests that it's more of a magical weapon than a talisman. Unless the name is figurative. Or it's something ornamental in the shape of a sword. Zermahaar lives in the castle of Adonerath, which is almost unreachable owing to the Haverine-created monsters and traps that surround it. And he's a bit mad himself, overly fond of puzzles, liable to demand something of value in return for the potion and Sword, and prone to doing terrible things to those who bring gifts that do not meet his standards.

When I agree to try and get the potion and Sword, my contact ditches the cloak they've been wearing, revealing that my employer is none other than the queen. She warns me that many adventurers have already attempted this quest and failed, and now the madness has afflicted so many that nobody from the region can be trusted. She gives me some gold and a pack containing provisions, rope and a sword (what kind of adventurer am I to not have any of this stuff already?), and declares that I must return with the items from Zermahaar by sunset tomorrow.

I will definitely be allocating dice at character creation, thereby getting an in-with-a-chance:
Dexterity 11
Strength 19
No other stats. Not even a non-randomised one for keeping track of the passage of time, so that 'by sunset' deadline has no impact on the outcome, despite the multitude of opportunities the adventure offers to waste time on false trails.

I will also be using the map I made when repeatedly playing THM for review purposes last decade. It's been long enough since I last endured this adventure that even using the map is no guarantee of following the right path, but it should at least enable me to avoid several near-identical arbitrary Instant Deaths, as well as sparing me the consequences of a particularly atrocious bit of gamebook design about which I shall rant at the appropriate moment, should I survive that long.

Anyway, I set off north along the road, eventually reaching a junction, at which I take the turning that will not guarantee failure. The path leads to another junction, and I keep going in the same direction, because turning north leads to a choice between getting lost in the mist and falling to my death in a chasm, and plummeting to my doom in the exact same chasm as a consequence of getting lost in the mist.

Further along, I see two horses tied up at a rail, both equipped with saddle and bridle. One is white, the other black, and I have no recollection of this incident whatsoever, so I ignore both and walk on. It's a hot day, and the long trek is a little uncomfortable, but I suffer no adverse effects from being on foot rather than on horseback. Some time later I reach another junction, and risk not going north again, but I do turn north at the next junction. This leads to a fight with an insane Ogre with manacles on his wrists, after which the path joins up with the previous turning to the north. So I might as well have taken that one, but I thought the Ogre might have had some treasure on him. Still, I took no damage in the fight, so the unnecessary detour didn't cost me anything.

The road passes a cottage, with a man standing outside. He invites me to peruse the items of potential interest inside, and I decide to see what he has on offer. Only one of the curios on offer catches my attention: a silver chalice with strange markings. The man tells me it was made by the Elvins of the Korowan valley, and offers it to me for 3 gold. Is this the item that will placate Zermahaar? I pay up in case, but something I do remember from winning before immediately indicates that this isn't what I'm after. Well, that would have been a bit easy. I'll just have to hope that my remaining gold is enough to cover any purchases that actually matter.

There's a side road by the cottage, which I ignore. Continuing north, I reach another junction, and as I'm contemplating which way to go, I get a slightly clumsy transition to a new section. There, a concealed archer fires an arrow at me, but misses. I take cover behind a tree, and the archer steps out into the road, drawing a sword. This is one of the tougher fights in the book, and I take significant damage in spite of my high Dexterity. More than I inflict, in fact, but as my Strength was almost twice that of the Archer, I'm the one still standing at the end of the fight. There's no loot to be had here, either: as far as I can tell, the only purpose this fight serves (other than killing off most characters with a below-average Dexterity) is to provide a distraction from the junction, so readers might not notice that they've been denied the opportunity to choose a direction.

Staggering north, I reach another junction. This time there's actually a little description of the ways I can go from here: west to a forest clearing, or east up a hill. I check out the clearing, and find a remarkably ugly old woman gathering herbs. She offers me some 'for strength', and I accept. They smell and taste bad, but do restore some of the Strength I lost in that fight, so this was a more productive detour than the one with the Ogre.

There being no other paths leading from the clearing, I go back to the junction and up the hill. From the top, a path runs further east along a cliff edge, and another winds north down to a riverside beach with a boat on it. I think the fight to be had in the east is another waste of time, so I head north.

As I approach the boat, I round an outcrop of rock, and find the remains of a long-dead man. The bones of his right hand still clutch a jewelled dagger, and his left hand appears to be reaching for something. A cursory dig in the area towards which the deceased was grasping turns up a golden collar. I may, if I so choose, take either the dagger or the collar, but not both. No explanation is given for why I can only have one of them, but the same thing happens whenever there's a choice of items to take, so I'm going to assume that adventuring is a tightly regulated profession here, and there are strict limits on the acquisition of treasure.

I take the item I think might be the essential one, and I'm right. It gives me a nasty sensation of pins and needles when I pick it up, but provides a significant boost to my Strength. Dropping it into my pack, I continue towards the boat. I row across the river with some difficulty, as the tide is not in my favour, and as I disembark from the boat, I am promptly mistaken for Mungo and attacked by a Giant Crab. Thinking ahead to the endgame, I will observe that the accompanying illustration reveals the Crab to have eight legs. Which a friend of mine who did a degree in Marine Biology confirmed to be the correct number (unless you count the claws, but apparently there is or was some disagreement over whether or not they constitute legs).

Though the Crab is as adept a fighter as the Archer, and has a slightly higher Strength, the dice favour me a little more in this fight, and I take less damage. There's nothing of value on this beach, so after a short rest, I scale the cliff ahead of me. From the beach it appeared to be a difficult climb, but I get to the top without having to roll dice or suffer any Strength loss, so it can't be that tricky.

At the top, paths run north and east. I'm not sure why, as both lead to the same fishing port and the same choices, leading to the same section numbers. For what it's worth, I take the path east. The coast is on the west of the port, and a little distance offshore is an island. There are also further paths north and east. Still, that island may be worth checking out before I go anywhere else, so I shall look into chartering a boat.

A weather-beaten old salt offers to transport me in his 'tidy craft' for two thirds of my remaining gold. His vessel turns out to be a rather unimpressive fishing boat, but it is at least seaworthy. As we set out across the bay, I notice that a few of the crew are becoming anxious. They're staring with some concern at a rock jutting from the water some way to the west. A rock that gets larger, and draws nearer, being joined by more of its kind as it approaches. Not entirely unsurprisingly, these rocks turn out to be parts of a mostly submerged monster, which becomes significantly less submerged once it catches up to the boat. It seizes one of the crew in its jaws, and I attack it. Some poor rolls early on cause me to take a little damage, but I prevail in the end, and the remains of the monster submerge for good.

The crew congratulate me, but I don't get any of my fare refunded for saving one of their number. We continue to the island, and I'm taken ashore in a dinghy. Up close, the island proves something of a disappointment, as I can see only rock and seabirds. And sand, in which a rusty metal box is half buried. And, after I smash the box open, an old man in a tattered robe, who calls me a thief. Though he does subsequently tell me that I may take one of the items in the box, which holds a rusty key and a bottle of liquid. The man says that the nectar in the bottle has restorative properties, but I still have food to restore Strength, whereas I don't have anything that could substitute for a key if I need one.

Thanking the man, I take the dinghy back to the boat, and we head back to the mainland. Again the crew look worried, this time because of approaching clouds. We don't reach land before the storm hits. A freak wave sweeps the deck clear of equipment, and the mast begins to crack. I still have the rope the queen gave me, though, and the crew are able to use it to effect a temporary repair, saving me from ending up like an unlucky Lone Wolf.

Back on dry land, I can take either of the paths that don't lead back to the top of the cliff. I had been intending to ignore the one that my map indicates to be a dead end, but the '(if you have not been that way before)' restriction makes me wonder if it might be worth a visit after all. I follow the road as it meanders along, eventually reaching the point where a landslide has blocked it, and as I turn to retrace my steps, a Scaly Rock Clinger leaps to the attack. It won't be doing any more leaping. And there's no loot after all. If I could meet myself from 12 years ago, I'd have a few things to say about listing items as well as encounters on the map.

Returning to the port, I take the other road that's open to me. It leads over a hill, and then changes direction, skirting a sinister-looking forest. From somewhere in the trees come howls and cries, drawing nearer until the source of the sounds bursts onto the road to attack. This is the Kraskar, a six-armed biped, wielding a spiked club in each hand, and I think it's the toughest necessary fight in the book. No treasure, as usual, but at least one of the items I've acquired prior to this point is essential for success, and there's no route from where I acquired that to the castle of Adonerath that bypasses the Kraskar. As against the Giant Crab, I get lucky, and take significantly less damage in the fight than I did against the Archer.

The path continues to another cliff edge, and the only way across the gorge that blocks my way is a rope bridge that has seen better days. I cross with care, and as I near the far side, a sneering youth with a sword emerges from the trees and demands a toll. I don't think I can afford to pay. That is, I have enough money, but I think I might need to buy something later on, and I doubt that what I'd have left after paying the toll will cover that purchase. So I guess I'll have to fight.

Despite having offered fighting as an option, the youth cuts the last remaining rope of the bridge before I can reach solid ground, causing me to plummet to my death. Well, he's not going to be able to extort money from anybody else for crossing his rotten bridge.

So, on this occasion I didn't get far enough to highlight the worst aspects of this adventure. That's a rant for another post, then. And at least I've reminded myself of a few detours I can safely avoid next time round.

Friday, 1 April 2016

The Bosses Are Using a Totally Rubbish Business Model

I can't remember whether or not I'd already heard about Alex Jenkins & Stephen Morrison's parody gamebook The Regional Accounts Director of Firetop Mountain by the time I came across a copy in the local library. Either way, I promptly borrowed it and took it home to play. My first attempt at the book slightly put me off it, as my character came to a sticky end as a result of my succeeding at a roll. I know there are a couple of gamebooks out there where failing a roll can be beneficial, but the writing here more strongly suggested that the section numbers at the end of the previous section were the wrong way round. Not having left any kind of bookmark in that section, I had no easy way of figuring out what I should have turned to, and just put the book down. Still, I wasn't so soured on the book as to pass up the opportunity to get a copy when one turned up cheap on eBay.

As can be inferred from the way my first go at the book ended, there are rules. With a hint of humour, but nothing to rival J.H. Brennan yet. All stats are determined by the roll of two dice, and I end up filling out my Adventure Curriculum Vitae with:
Aptitude 5
Endurance 3
Office Luck 8
I think my character might actually be inferior to the real me, which is something of an achievement. Quite possibly the only one I'll make in this playthrough.

While TRADoFM most closely apes Fighting Fantasy gamebooks (right down to the font used for the text), it differs from the majority of the FF range by not starting with a scene-setting 'Background'. Section 1 pretty much fulfils this function, and as it doesn't even end in a decision, just an instruction to turn to section 2, there's really no reason it couldn't have been separated off from the actual adventure as a 'Background'. It's not as if doing so would have adversely affected the number of sections - the adventure only has 279 in any case. (Pity they didn't add an unreachable section 192 in emulation of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain to make it a round 280.)

My character is an out-of-work temp, driven by desperation to seek out a certain temping agency in a particularly insalubrious part of the rather grim city I inhabit. They are pessimistic about my prospects, but when I indicate just how desperate I am, the office manager brings up the possibility of a data entry position that's about to become vacant. I accept, and he hands over details of the address of my incipient employer, Firetop Mountain plc. When I read out the name, a consultant shrieks and drops his phone into his gruel. Maybe he's a pedant, and can't bear the way they leave the initialism in lower case.

In the morning I trek for hours to reach my new workplace, a hideous concrete tower block. The top floors are architecturally incongruous, with an ornate design that appears to have been hewn from the living rock. Which is geologically absurd, but that's almost certainly intentional. Checking that I'm not early, I approach the door... which is where section 1 ends.

The building looms over me. The door looms over me. The buttons set into the wall loom over me. If the excessive degree of looming is to become a running gag rather than a one-off, I hope that at some point in the adventure I come across a device for weaving cloth. And someone who's come to collect an inheritance.

Anyway, there are two buttons on the wall next to the door, one marked 'RECEPTION', the other '240V'. The second one makes me think of electricity, and as I'd rather avoid having any shock-related penalties deplete my already abysmal stats, I avoid it and press the 'RECEPTION' one. The door clicks open and I enter the lobby. It's dimly lit, but the gloom doesn't loom. Perched behind a very high desk is an albino receptionist, glowing faintly. She doesn't loom, either (though I guess she is luminescing).

The receptionist brusquely orders me to sign in, handing down a leather-bound ledger and a quill pen in an inkpot. The plume doesn't loom. As I sign in, I observe the complete absence of other names in the book, though that may be because the pages are all so thickly coated in dried Tipp-Ex. Despite the receptionist's surliness, I try to be friendly - I may need to make a sudden exit, so it would be inadvisable to incur the wrath of the person best positioned to get in my way as I'm heading out. She's pleased to be treated as a person, and I gain an Office Luck bonus, which persists even after we run out of small talk and wind up smiling awkwardly at each other in silence.

Eventually the receptionist directs me to the waiting room, which contains wooden sofas and a framed motivational poster. Remembering that looking at pictures in gamebooks can be harmful to the health, and mindful that interesting items may be found down the back of a sofa, I opt to sit down. It's not that comfortable, but nothing bad happens.

A thin man with an orthopaedic shoe and a bloodshot eye comes in, introducing himself as Bernie Ditter. He asks me about my office experience, and ticks the paper on the wooden clipboard he holds as I answer his questions. He rubs the bloodshot eye as we talk, making it redder and redder, and when the interview is concluded and he leads me into an open-plan office, I observe that the paper on the clipboard is blank, apart from one tick in biro. That's actually a bit disturbing.

The office is full of booths, and the sound of typing fills the air. A tea lady pushes a wheeled urn around the room, and judging by the mention of 'sugary steam', it seems likely that the tea has been pre-sweetened. There's definitely something not right about this place. Ditter shows me to a booth and, with perturbing intensity, urges me not to leave the desk at any time, as the auditors are in. I ask where the toilets are, and Ditter claims that the staff tend not to use them. I notice, with some distaste, that the floor has a slight slope to it, leading to a gutter in the floor, and Ditter makes himself scarce while I'm distracted.

My chair is incredibly uncomfortable, but the set-up at the desk is familiar: the computer already switched on, a stack of papers, and a well-used manual for explaining office procedure to newcomers. Everything is ready for me to get to work, so the text asks how I intend to commence slacking. I shan't Google my own name - one time I did that in real life, I came across two separate mentions (both definitely about me rather than someone with the same name) relating to the issue of whether or not I was actually a fictional character. I doubt that anything like that will happen here, but peeking into the neighbouring booth strikes me as being a better potential source of useful information.

I stand up to peer over the dividing partition, and find myself face-to-face with the booth's occupant. He's not standing, though - he just has an abnormally long neck. His name is Jessie, and he reveals that he's unpopular with the Archive Department because he keeps giving the wrong references for filing. He's not a great conversationalist, and a die roll establishes that I'm no better in that regard. Having failed to engage Jessie's interest with talk of canals, I mention the uncomfortable chair, and he yells at me to shut up.

Getting to work, I become aware that the data I'm entering includes tax details of people I know. Other temps, whom I haven't seen in a long time. With horror, I realise... that my printer back at home is low on paper, so I sneak over to the photocopier and help myself to a ream. As I sit back down at my desk, the pain gets worse, so I take a proper look at the chair to see if I can figure out what's wrong with it.

There's a blade protruding from the back of the chair, which is a pretty egregious breach of Health and Safety guidelines. That gutter in the floor is nothing to do with poor sanitation: it's been collecting the trickle of blood from the wounds I've sustained while sitting down. I jump to my feet, and slip in my spilt blood. Abruptly, the lights and computers all go dark. I hear strange cries, running footsteps, and, oddly hoofbeats.

I must choose a direction in which to run. What with the FF influence here, I'll go with Ian Livingstone's favourite. Owing to my wounds, it turns out to be more of a hobble than a run, but I make it to a corridor lit by a flaming torch. Up ahead I see two doors with bolts, each etched with a rune: one denoting 'man', the other 'woman'. I go through the first of these doors, because if they're what I think they are, the other leads to forbidden territory, at least for the likes of me.

Yep, these are the toilets. There are no paper towels that I could use on my wound, and I can't get the rotary hand towel off the rollers, so I resort to barging into the cubicle to take the toilet roll. Regrettably, there's someone using the facilities, and he takes umbrage to my intrusion. While his current activity does restrict his mobility, he can still kick, so I'm into my first fight of the adventure. And it's one that I'm in with a chance of winning, as his stats are abysmal.

I do win. Just. As I am, rather impractically, stealing the man's trousers to use as a tourniquet, I hear a sound like grating stone, and turn to see what new threat is imminent. It appears to be Ditter, who hits me with his clipboard, causing me to fall down, banging my head on a basin as I do. In describing this, the authors use the word 'sink' more times and in more ways than strictly necessary. The bad writing must be deliberate, for humorous purposes, but it's a cheap joke, and not that funny.

I fall into a large body of water, which turns out to be in a massive toilet bowl. Not too large for me to be able to climb out, though. The soaking has put my mobile phone out of action, so I can't call for the police or medical assistance. Beyond the cubicle door I am surprised to see a row of tiny wash basins. My exploration of these somewhat bizarre toilet facilities is interrupted by a rhythmic booming from the adjacent room. Peering through the window in the door, I see the tea lady arriving in the Server Room, the place's function being indicated by a sign (and the significant quantity of computer hardware).

Given that the book's drawing out my character's realisation of just how weird things are at Firetop Mountain, it's a little surprising that the sign and the technological gubbins get my attention before the grey-skinned brute in chainmail standing on a desk. He's using a broom to prod at a blocked drain in the ceiling, and when the tea lady comments on the blackout, he explains that a clot in the pipeline is to blame, but the anti-coagulant should soon take effect.

The drain gurgles and deposits what I somehow recognise as day-old blood into a cauldron. The being with the broom plugs an ethernet cable into the cauldron. It suddenly dawns on me that this thing is a troll, and I think this is the point at which my first attempt at the adventure came to an end. Yes, it's a roll against Office Luck to see whether or not I can handle the shock, but according to the section numbers given, I have to score above my Office Luck to not black out. The section covering conversing with the receptionist implied that gaining Office Luck was a good thing, though, so this has to be an error. Or a deliberate mistake, but if so, there should be something to indicate that this is supposed to be a case of failure through authorial/editorial blunder. And on the subject of blunders, this is one of those instances where nobody has allowed for the possibility of rolling equal to, rather than above or below, the relevant score. Not that I do, thanks to the bonus I got in reception.

So, I rolled lower than my Office Luck. A quick flick through the book in search of another 'Test your Luck' situation reveals that the authors do consider rolling above the score to be the 'good' outcome, but another bonus glimpsed in passing also makes it clear that an increase in Office Luck is supposed to be a good thing. They haven't thought this through. Or one of the authors really resented the need to fail a Luck roll in Black Vein Prophecy, and opted to express their displeasure by wrecking the game system here. Either way, I am strongly tempted to go with the text as written, since that would give me an excuse to reshelve the book and... I was going to say 'get on with something more fun', but then I remembered what I'm supposed to be playing next. Nevertheless, this instance of authorial ineptitude/sabotage has again put me off TRADoFM, and my dislike of what's coming next is not intense enough to induce me to stick with the book, so my character passes out, and winds up in the dungeons.

I hesitate to use the term 'lazy writing', because even a bad book may well be the end product of considerable effort. Still, however much work Messrs. Jenkins and Morrison may have put into The Regional Accounts Director of Firetop Mountain, it wasn't enough. As a parody, it may be okay - I'd have to get through more of it to find out - but as a gamebook, it's a failure.